Mayor Clarence Lightner
The first African American elected mayor of a major Southern city was a small businessman in an industry known for placing a premium on client service. So expanding that commitment to constituent and community service came naturally to Clarence Lightner.
Born Aug. 15, 1921, in Raleigh, Lightner was the son of Calvin and Mamie Lightner. Owners of a local funeral home, they were also strong believers in civic engagement. As a teenager, Lightner watched his parents and other members of the Negro Voters League work long hours to register African Americans to vote at a time when many were disenfranchised.
Although Lightner intended to join his father in the family business, he chose not to follow in his footsteps by attending Shaw University in Raleigh. Instead, after graduation from high school, he enrolled at North Carolina Central University. A gifted athlete, he played quarterback and was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. After graduation in 1941, he attended Echols College of Mortuary Science.
Lightner served three years in the U.S. Army during World War II, returning to Raleigh after his discharge and joining his father in the family business. He ultimately managed the funeral home for 45 years.
As a successful businessman and strong leader, Lightner’s stature within the community grew. Following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he ran for Raleigh City Council and was first elected in 1967. He was subsequently elected mayor in 1973, winning support from both African Americans and whites to defeat a white businessman.
During his time in office, Lightner developed a strong reputation for combining integrity and a gentle spirit with a passionate desire to make the world a better place for all people. A charter member of the Southern Conference of Black Mayors, he served only one term as mayor because, in 1977, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to fill an unexpired term in the NC Senate.
Lightner’s commitment to public service continued after he left elected office. In 1993 he was appointed as chairman of the Southeast Raleigh Improvement Commission, a post he held for eight years. His accomplishments included creating a small business incubation program, which was the forerunner of the Raleigh Business and Technology Center.
Lightner also served as chairman of the Board of Trustees at Saint Augustine’s College, and as a member of the Board of Trustees at North Carolina Central University.
After his death in 2002, the state legislature passed a joint resolution recognizing Lightner’s life and many accomplishments. His memory is recognized today in the Clarence E. Lightner Youth Foundation, established by his son to help middle school students see the importance of serving the community.
Author: Sherae Bonner